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For State Elections Officials, a Slow Move Online

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 17 2012

With a recent report from the Pew Center for the States revealing that one in eight voter registrations across the country is inaccurate, one could be forgiven for asking: If in 2012, Target can guess whether or not someone is about to have a baby with startling accuracy, why is it so hard for states to store voter information?

Part of the answer is the way many states are still mired in paper records, where hand-entered voter rolls provide inefficiency and opportunity for error. But some elections officials have found a way out from under the reams of ink-stained sheets: Nine states have online voter registration already, and as many as 12 could have it by November, officials say. Election officials in states that already have these programs say that technically, none of this is hard to do — what it takes is political will.

Arizona was the first state to implement online voter registration, doing so in 2002. Under the Arizona system, voters who have a state ID card can register online. Their voter data is authenticated against information the state's Department of Motor Vehicles already has, including a digitized copy of their signature. It took legislation to enact, but was not difficult to implement, officials say.

"It took basically someone to kind of be the executive sponsor, someone to champion it all the way through," said Craig Stender, project manager for the Help America Vote Act in Arizona. "You're going to have people who doubt the security of the program and are concerned about voter fraud, and you need to be able to answer back any critics of the program, because that takes energy."

The online system now accounts for 70 to 80 percent of voter registrations. Even though the project involved having the two databases be able to communicate with each other, "nothing was technically too hard to do," Stender sad. "I think any state could do this."

Arizona this week has also implemented the ability for candidates to collect online signatures on petitions at the state level. (In order to qualify for a spot on the ballot, candidates must first circulate petitions — just like in high school.)

"Voters can study the candidates and then go sign them," Stender said. "They don't have to get bombarded outside the grocery store."

Washington State modeled its program on Arizona's, and first sought legislative authority in 2006, with approval in spring of 2007, said Shane Hamlin, co-director of elections in Washington.

"The legislative challenges prior to it was assuring legislators that it was secure and safe, that there would not be widespread voter fraud," Hamlin said.

After a soft launch of electronic voter registration in January 2008, the Washington system handled 40 percent of all registrations, and has since handled over 425,000 registrations and address updates.

Estelle Rogers, legislative director at Project Vote, says that many legislators are worried about security — that they have the fear that somebody would fill out an online form in another person's name.

But she notes that even though the most recent Pew Report shows that that there are a large number of errors in voter registration documents and that close to 1.8 million dead people are registered, the report does not indicate that it results in a lot of fraud.

"It's not built-in fraud, it's just that bureaucratic messiness that we have the capability to solve," Rogers said. "There are not all these dead people on the voting rolls running around voting."

(Minnesota's ACLU is offering a $1,000 reward for an example of voter impersonation.)

Project Vote has drafted proposals under which voters could register online and then supply their signature when voting, as is practiced for registering by mail. But for legislators, she said, "having your signature in some other preexisting database gives them comfort."

Hamlin said that in Washington State, over 90 percent of voters have identification from the DMV. He also added that unlike other states, Washington has somewhat more accurate information about its voters because it is a vote-by-mail state, and therefore is regularly communicating with voters through the postal service.

So that Washington and other states have even more accurate voter data, the Pew Center for the States is working with officials there and in seven other dates to develop the Electronic Registration Information Center, a database to analyze voter registration data across states in addition to allowing the matching of that data with information from DMVs or data feeds from other public agencies. The database is set to go live in the first half of this year, according to David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States.

By participating in the new system, Hamlin said, Washington will be able to find people in its DMV database who are eligible to vote but have not registered, and reach out to them. The new database will also allow the states to share voter registration data in the hopes of reconciling information about voters who may have moved.

Becker explained that system uses a one-way hash system to ensure privacy. In that case, for example, a ten-digit driver's license I.D. number is converted into 40-digit number. While the new sequence might be practically impossible to unencrypt, it can still be matched with the same 40-digit number coming from another database. He emphasized that the system came about through discussions and cooperation with election officials as part of a working group that Pew formed.

The cost savings, says Hamlin, of Washington, are immediate.

"Every online registration saves the state about 25 cents, saves the county between 50 cents and 2 dollars," Hamlin said, adding that it saves voters $300,000 in postage altogether.

In New York, Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat in the state Assembly, is sponsoring an online voter registration bill and is a co-sponsor of the Automatic Voter Registration Act for New York, under which the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Taxation and Finance would transmit names of eligible voters to the State Board of Elections to forward on to the local election boards in each county. (The city of New York also has its own Board of Elections for city offices.) The first bill, A8632, would allow voters to register online by filling in a Social Security number or a valid driver's license number. The second bill also directs the State Board of Elections to study the feasibility of using other state and local records as a means of automatically registering voters. "This is an area that elected officials are cautious about since it is passing laws about the business they're in," Kavanagh said.

And he noted that finding room for the issue of election reform could be difficult currently given that in several states, including New York, electeds are at the moment busy with contentious debate over the shape of the districts they'll be running to represent — how voters in each district might be able to register being a problem to be solved later on.

Which isn't to say Kavanagh doesn't think the problem will be solved.

"There is an inevitability to this," he said.